Martin Luther King died in 1968, a year of incredible upheaval throughout the world. I was a young married man with a beautiful young daughter. We lived in San Diego, California, and I was a private music teacher. It was a completely different world then. People in my town thought it was funny to call Dr. King “Martin Luther Coon.” Many were sure he was a communist.
A student came to my studio in downtown San Diego for a music lesson. He was about 16, and his father was an officer in the Navy. San Diego had a large US Navy base.
This young man broke the shocking news to me that Dr. King had been assassinated. He was quite pleased. He referred to Dr. King as “Martin Coon.”
I was too upset to give him his lesson, and I had to shut my studio for the rest of the day and cancel my lessons. I noted the other teachers there did not seem too affected. San Diego was a heavily segregated city in those days, very conservative.
Dr. King had been more popular a year or so previously. He had captured the moral compassion of the white population by exposing the terrible injustices of the Jim Crow system. He built a mass movement of millions to knock down Jim Crow. Liberal politicians began to endorse him under the weight of the mass movement against Jim Crow. It was becoming more and more acceptable to be anti Jim Crow in polite circles.
But in 1967, just a year before he died, Dr. King gave a sermon, titled Beyond Vietnam, at the historic Riverside Church in New York. In that speech, he denounced America’s participation in the Vietnam war. I hope you read that speech in full. You can go to it by clicking here.
The popular mind associated the Vietnam war with the cold-war policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. And liberal politicians, who desperately did not want to be associated with communism, mostly supported that war. Until 1966 or so, very few opposed the Vietnam war, mostly a few pacifist and socialist organizations. Additionally, some socialist groups restricted themselves to opposing “the bomb,” nuclear weapons, and did not want to talk about the actual shooting war, lest they be accused of lacking patriotism.
So the liberal politicians were furious with Dr. King because he had strayed beyond the issue of civil rights and had gotten into issues of war. Many condemned Dr. King for stepping out of his place. Being for peace was nowhere near as mainstream as being against Jim Crow, and liberal politicians who sought ratings by being pro civil-rights suddenly found themselves being associated with an eloquent opponent of a shooting war in progress.
For example, the mainstream Time Magazine, which had been kinder to Dr. King in previous years said this about him and his “Beyond Vietnam” sermon:
…drawling bumpkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling.
You know, what bothers me most about MLK day is some of the people who now praise Dr. King. I refer to those conservative opponents of racial and social justice who now use his words to mean support for free market and opposition to any kind of affirmative action. I refer to those who trivialize the struggles for social justice.
To those conservatives whose co-thinkers condemned Dr. King while he was alive but who praise Dr. King today, I ask, “What do you make of it that Dr. King called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence today?” From his speech:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, "What about Vietnam?" They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
Do you agree with Dr. King?
Today the United States spends more on its military budget than all other countries combined.
What do you think Dr. King would say about that?
According to the New York Times of January 17, 2007, the war in Iraq cost 200 billion annually. Universal health care for every American man, woman and child would be 100 billion, universal preschool for half-day for 3-year-olds and full day for-4-year olds 35 billion, fully carrying out the 9/11 Commission recommendations 10 billion, cancer research for a year 6 billion, and immunizations for every child in the world against measles, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, polio, and diphtheria 0.6 billion. Those programs, universal health care, universal preschool, 9/11 security recommendations, a year of cancer research, and immunizing all the world’s children against the major killers all together costs much less than just 1 year of the Iraq war. And now Obama’s surge in Afghanistan will cost an extra 30 billion, or 1 million per soldier.
What would Dr. King say about that?
Since 2003, there have been around 100,000 documented violent civilian deaths as a direct consequence of combat in the Iraq war, the majority the result of coalition (mostly US) military action. That’s civilian noncombatant deaths. This does not include the many more civilians who died under undocumented circumstance.
What would Dr. King say about that?
When Dr. King’s assassin struck him down, he was in Memphis, Tennessee to help organize support for a labor union strike of sanitation workers. This was part of his Poor People’s Campaign.
What was the Poor People’s Campaign? Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were trying to organize a movement that would bring millions to Washington DC, who would build a shantytown and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience until Congress passed a bill of rights for poor people. He wanted the funding for the Vietnam war to be revoked and instead spent on social programs and social justice. He wanted a guaranteed annual income (something Richard Nixon actually supported for a while after King’s death).
In his final speech to the SCLC, King called for fundamentally restructuring these United States. He called for nationalizations of a lot of basic industry.
Here is a tiny part of that speech:
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here?" that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes)
There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes)
And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right)
It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" (Yes) You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" (Yes) You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?" (All right)
These are words that must be said. (All right)
And today, 43 years later, those questions remain. Poverty is greater now than before. The corporate plutocracy has an even tighter grip, greed is more transparent, and the American wage-earner and so-called “middle class” are in an even more precarious position.
One day, we truly must come to understand this about an edifice that produces beggars, wars, injustice—simply because of the demands of the marketplace requires it.
Such an edifice needs restructuring.
And to do that will require a mass movement of the American people. Our power comes not from the barrel of a gun but from our potential to act in solidarity in a mass movement!
That, my friends, is the lesson that Dr. Martin Luther King teaches us today, and we are in sore need of it!
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